Football: Conference warning to League

Stevenage Borough 2 Kidderminster Harriers 2

While Woking and Hednesford were doing the Vauxhall Conference proud at Premiership stadiums on Saturday, the league's top two teams at the start of the day laid on a thoroughly entertaining 90 minutes at Broadhall Way for the biggest Conference crowd of the season.

Although the majority of the 6,489 will have gone home unhappy that the champions Stevenage, who were in second place with five games in hand, were unable to make any impression on Kidderminster's 15-point lead, the match was a credit to two ambitious clubs.

Stevenage, as champions last season, and Kidderminster, two seasons before, were denied promotion from the Conference because their grounds failed to meet Football League requirements. Now they are both up to scratch and the Third Division's bottom club this time are unlikely to be reprieved in the way Torquay were last season.

Having suffered these identical disappointments, there is great mutual respect between the sides. It was evident in a game that, despite its significance and despite five bookings, never came near to being a scrap; and it was evident in Stevenage's smart new press box where their manager, Paul Fairclough, and his Kidderminster counterpart, Graham Allner, were happy to perform an impromptu double act for their inquisitors after the game.

Though he was restored to full fitness after a hamstring injury, Stevenage decided not to start with their Nigerian central defender Efetobor Sodje, whose defensive athleticism and distinctive bandana have caught the eye of Wimbledon among others. The decision seemed to have backfired after 13 minutes, when the former Aston Villa and England Under-21 striker Ian Olney put the finishing touch to Chris Brindley's prodigious leap from Neil Doherty's corner to give Kidderminster the lead.

Stevenage equalised 10 minutes later, Neil Catlin's free-kick curling straight in after evading everybody, including a rogue Stevenage hand, but within a minute the Doherty-Brindley- Olney combination had restored the visitors' lead.

The arrival of Sodje, to huge cheers, five minutes into the second half lifted Stevenage morale perceptibly. Darren Steadman produced a string of fine saves for Kidderminster but, with just 13 minutes left, a horrible mix-up between Brindley and Steadman gave Corey Browne the simplest of tasks to complete the scoring.

All of which left Allner, despite being pegged back twice, marginally the happier manager and fancying Kidderminster's chances of survival in a higher league. "A lot of those clubs are taking the Football Trust money and improving their facilities," he said, "but it's the organisation and strength overall where the Conference clubs are improving which means, when they do go up, they'll have a better chance of competing with Football League clubs."

Fairclough, meanwhile, was quick to appreciate the crowd's contribution: "The potential of the club is amazing," he said. "At one stage when the chant was ringing round the stadium, it was incredible. I've never heard it before and it was wonderful, absolutely wonderful."

Goals: Olney (13) 0-1; Catlin (23) 1-1; Olney (24) 1-2; Browne (77) 2-2.

Stevenage Borough (4-4-2): Gallagher; Hooper, Kirby, Smith, Mutchell; Trebble (Sodje, 51), Beevor, Barrowcliff, Hayles; Catlin, Browne (Crawshaw, 89). Substitute not used: Adams.

Kidderminster Harriers (4-3-3): Steadman; Bignot, Brindley, Weir, Prindiville; Willetts, Webb, Deakin (Cartwright, 86); Doherty (McCue, 69), Olney, Hughes (Casey, 69).

Referee: T Howes (Norwich). Bookings: Stevenage: Smith, Trebble, Kirby. Kidderminster: Weir, Prindiville.

Man of the match: Catlin. Attendance: 6,489.

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